Kudos to international law enforcement for thwarting last month’s terror plot by alleged al Qaeda-linked factions in Yemen against the United States. The plot was foiled when good intelligence and coordination led authorities on three continents to seize two packages of explosives addressed to Chicago area synagogues.
Though there’s some question now about whether the packages were meant for those synagogues because the addresses were out of date, it would by no means have been the first time the American Jewish community and its institutions were placed in the cross hairs as terror targets.
In May 2009, two New York City synagogues – Riverdale Temple (Reform) and the Riverdale Jewish Center (Orthodox) – garnered national attention due to the terrorist plot against them that was foiled by the NYPD and FBI, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security.
A small group of men, infiltrated by an FBI informant, had intended to inflict major damage to the synagogues with explosives-packed parked cars.
In July 2006, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle was the target of a vicious hate crime attack in which six women were shot, one fatally. The shooter had selected his target by researching “something Jewish” on the Internet. Witnesses reported the terrorist shouting “I’m a Muslim American; I’m angry at Israel” before he began his shooting spree.
In 2005, a plot by homegrown Islamic radicals to attack Jewish institutions (including synagogues and the Israeli Consulate) and other targets in the Los Angeles area was thwarted. In their plea agreements, the terrorists stated that the purpose of their plot was “to retaliate against the governments of the United States and Israel by attacking targets in Southern California associated with the U.S. military and the Jewish religion.”
The object of the conspiracy was to “kill as many people as possible who were present at the locations.” They planned to carry out their attack on a synagogue during Yom Kippur in order to increase the potential number of casualties.
Based on my experiences as the NYPD’s intelligence representative to the Israel National Police from 2003-2007 and my firsthand knowledge of global suicide terrorism gained from being present at terror scenes in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Spain and Russia, I witnessed the impact and consequences of good security versus bad security or no security. I learned best-practice security measures and hardening-target techniques and saw them at work, saving lives and mitigating losses. I also observed security failures and breakdowns and learned what makes a target attractive to would-be attackers.
Vulnerability makes a target soft and accessible. My strongest piece of advice to the Jewish community and its institutions is to take a proactive approach to defending itself. Yes, government and law enforcement agencies are working hard to keep you safe, but taking additional steps in terror prevention will only serve to help you and the community as a whole.
Follow New York’s post-9/11 example by stepping up and taking responsibility. New York officials realize the city remains a target and they continue to respond with all-out prevention tactics. (The “See Something Say Something” campaign proved effective when a car bomb plot was thwarted earlier this year by alert citizens.)
What can you do? Make your institution less attractive to a terrorist. If a would-be attacker sees or reads that your institution has physical deterrents and experienced professional security personnel with law enforcement or military backgrounds, they likely will move on to a softer target. I don’t mean to be callous by saying it’s every man or synagogue for himself or itself, but taking precautionary steps – well-thought-out safety measures rather than a mere band-aid reactionary approach – makes a serious difference.
You might counter this and say a location can be attacked even if it has good security, and that indeed is true. But at the very least, as has been proven, the number of casualties will be reduced with proper preventative measures.
Unfortunately, we all have to live with the threat and reality of terror. But we do not need to sit idly by. I strongly urge the Jewish community to take responsibility for its own safety by teaching alertness and being proactive.
Whether through Homeland Security grants earmarked for securing Jewish agencies or by private funding, security concerns and improvement should be at the top of every Jewish institution’s priority list.